5 Ways to Avoid Creating Dead Robot Respondents

Dead Robots“When the individual’s behavior and consciousness get hooked to a routine sequence of external actions, he is a dead robot, and it is time for him to die and be reborn. Time to ‘drop out,’ ‘turn on,’ and ‘tune in.’

– Dr. Timothy Leary

OK, it’s no longer the 1960s, but the words of Dr. Timothy Leary are eerily prescient about the current state of survey research.

Allow me to explain.

When we expect respondents to take the same old boring surveys, when we misuse their time, and when we treat them with less than full respect, we cannot expect them to feel good about what they are doing.

However enthusiastic they may be about helping us help our clients, they eventually, understandably, become “dead robots,” responding in a rote fashion until they just can’t take it anymore.

Naturally, “dead robot” respondents provide lesser quality data, and, they are much more likely to drop out of our surveys.

We could all use tips and reminders about how to keep respondents “turned on” and “tuned in.” Here are 5 suggestions for you to consider using in your surveys.

And no, I’m not suggesting using any of Dr. Leary’s preferred methods.

Note: Ivana Taylor at the QuestionPro Blog recently had an excellent post with a couple of suggestions for minimizing drop-outs, which I will borrow as suggestions 1) and 2).

1) Allow Respondents to Save and Continue Later

Your respondent is halfway done with your questionnaire, and the phone and doorbell ring simultaneously.

Why not give the respondent the option to save their progress and continue taking the survey at a more convenient time? If you don’t allow this option, you’re encouraging people to close their browser and say, “oh, forget it.”

2) Set a Time Limit and Provide a Timer

If you set a time limit for the completion of a survey, along with a built-in timer, you are encouraging the respondent to give a higher level of focus on the task.

Think about it, if you are trying to finish the survey within 10 minutes, you are concentrating and working hard. You don’t want to drop out because you are in a race with yourself and you want to see if you can meet the challenge.

And now, here are three more suggestions:

3) Keep Your Survey Short

Write your survey. Cut it in half. Then cut it in half again. Then maybe, just maybe, you can add a few questions back in.

For years I’ve been hearing people talk about the importance of keeping surveys short. With the advent of mobile surveys, that advice is even more important. Yet I keep hearing horror stories about 30-minute, 40-minute or even longer questionnaires.

Stand up for your respondents by cruelly and efficiently cutting out all the fat, and maybe even some bone.

If you’re asking respondents to fill out a questionnaire, ask yourself, “Would I do this survey?” I think the answer may be revealing.

4) Provide a Progress Bar

A progress bar is a merciful thing. And it’s a smart thing. Without it, respondents are left guessing how much longer they will be completing your questionnaire.

Without a progress bar, a respondent could drop out just a few questions from the end of the survey. With a progress bar, respondents at least have a sense of the task at hand. Honesty is appreciated and goes a long way to engendering loyalty.

If your survey software offers a progress bar option, use it. If it doesn’t, consider looking for new survey software.

5) Make the Survey Convenient

If you make the survey convenient for the respondent, they will reward you with their responses and with quality data.

First and foremost, for online surveys your default assumption should be to offer the questionnaire on a traditional desktop/laptop web browser, and offer a mobile option.

Of course, this can backfire if your survey has not been properly tested and is thus terrible looking, or even completely messed up, on a mobile device. Depending on your audience, you should also consider offering offline options as well.

These are just a few options to consider for keeping your respondents “turned on” and “tuned in.” Fundamentally, it boils down to putting yourself in the respondents’ shoes and creating a questionnaire that you yourself would realistically complete.

Please share your ideas for keeping respondents engaged in your survey in the comments section below.

About Dana Stanley

Dana is the Editor-in-Chief of Research Access.


  1. Michael Hollon says:

    Dana, Thanks for pointing out things I thought I was the only one to emphasize. Of all the ways that surveys go bad, the most common way is respondents are just bored and not engaged. Spend time being a respondent for surveys that other people write and you get a much better appreciation of this.

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